Some great television shows pick up steam over the course of the first season, but with these shows, it was love at first sight. These television pilots subverted our expectations, made us laugh until we cried, and kept us on the edges of our seats.
When the now classic David Lynch and Mark Frost created series Twin Peaks debuted in the spring of 1990, there was nothing else like it on television. The set-up may seem like a rote, police procedural: an FBI agent travels to a small town to investigate the murder of a beautiful teenage girl.
After pitching the concept for the show to ABC, they asked David Lynch and Mark Frost to create a screenplay. While Frost focused more on creating the verbal characters, Lynch was hard at work developing Agent Dale Cooper, who Lynch notes, “says a lot of the things I say.” They were given a $1.8 million budget to film the pilot, which ended up being two hours long.
On September 22, 2004, the J.J. Abrams television series Lost started off with jolting pilot episode that dominated water cooler talk for weeks. Viewers were given just a few seconds to breathe as the pilot opened with Dr. Jack Shepard lying on a beach before the show introduced the disorienting plane crash that sucked us into the sci-fi series.
The pilot alone was enough to get all the actors on board for the show, despite the fact that they were still unsure if it would succeed as a series. Matthew Fox, who played Jack, told Empire, “I got cast ten days before we started shooting, usually I read things before I go into meetings. But there was no script. When I did finally get to look at something, JJ put me in a room and proceeded to open the door every 20 minutes, saying, ‘What do you think? What do you think?’ I said, ‘You gotta let me finish!’ But I was blown away, from the first page. The image of a guy waking up in a bamboo forest, wearing a suit, was incredibly intriguing.”
The premise of the Vince Gilligan show Breaking Bad is that high school chemistry teacher Walter White turns into a meth dealer when he finds out he has cancer. Of course, the brilliant part about the pilot is that it starts right in the middle of the action, then rewinds to explain those first moments.
The man who leads the series was none other than actor Bryan Cranston, who played Walter White. Gilligan knew he wanted Cranston in the role, but AMC executives were unsure of the choice due to Cranston’s past in the comedic dad role on Malcolm in the Middle. But Gilligan, who previously worked on The X-Files had previously cast Cranston in an episode and knew that he was the one for Breaking Bad saying, “We had this villain, and we needed the audience to feel bad for him when he died. Byran alone was the only actor who could do that, who could pull off that trick. And it is a trick. I have no idea how he does it.”
Mad Men, the American period drama created by Matthew Weiner, is yet another AMC show with an incredible pilot episode. By the end of the 48-minute episode, we’re introduced to one of the most enigmatic characters on television—an advertising executive who is floundering just below the surface, Don Draper.
Getting Mad Men on the air was a long time coming. Matthew Weiner had been developing the pilot for a long time but was told it wasn’t going to work out until eventually, an unknown network at the time decided to pick up the show. He told Hollywood Reporter, “I finished the script and sent it to my agents. They didn’t read it for three or four months… I was advised not to send it anywhere because that was at a time when there were big overall deals for comedy writers. People would pay for the anticipation of what your proect would be, and actually having one was going to hurt you. I kept trying to get into HBO, but I never got a meeting. And I met with FX… [They] talked to me about making it into a half-hour. Then people started talking to me about a feature. It was my manager’s assistant who gave AMC the script. That’s who they were pawned off on.”
In the pilot episode of Cheers, there’s little explanation as the characters are introduced one by one. Bar owner Sam, intellectual Diane, bartender Coach, and witty waitress Carla are introduced as the interact with regulars Norma and Cliff. Their chemistry is immediate, and the show’s rapid-fire banter made instant fans out of viewers of this classic sitcom pilot.
The series producers were concerned about how the show would carry itself and decided that they should make stars within the show, rather than hiring stars to make the show what it is. Cheers creators Glen and Les Charles told The Telegraph-Herald in 1982, “We first thought a hotel would be the right setting and then a hotel bar. Then we zeroed in on a Boston neighborhood bar. Why Boston? Because Boston is cosmopolitan, a great sports town and it hasn’t been exploited on television… We read some stars for the lead role. We rejected the idea because a show becomes identified in the public mind as ‘so -and-so’s show.’ We decided to make stars instead.”
AMC knows how to find shows with a great pilot episode. The Killing pilot certainly owes a lot to its Danish predecessor, Forbrydelsen (The Crime). In the first episode, police detective Sarah Linden is planning to retire, but she’s sucked into an investigation involving the disappearance of a young girl named Rosie Larsen. As viewers, we’re just as sucked in as Linden.
When filiming the pilot The Killing’s director, Patty Jenkins, had to make a decision on whether or not the first episode could be graphic. She told AMCTV.com, “I think there were some fears that people would want more graphic detail out of it, but that moment never happened. That [might have been] a dealbreaker for me. I felt like we needed to do the bare minimum to get the point across, not to revel in details. If it had crossed that line I would have been very uncomfortable, and I think everybody would have been very uncomfortable. It’s always about what’s nevessary to tell the story you’re telling. This is not a story of sensationalism. This is an emotionally-based story, so that was all we needed and wanted.”
The American period crime drama Boardwalk Empire, created by Terence Winter, premiered on HBO in 2010 with a pilot episode that had everyone talking. The episode was directed by Martin Scorsese, and cost a total of $18 million. The pilot introduces the world of Nucky Thompson, a corrupt political figure who controls Atlantic City during the Prohibition period.
Like a lot of writers with an ambitious pilot script, Terence Winter doubted himself. He told Variety, “I kept thinking ‘This is pointless. How can we possibly afford a boardwalk, or an empire? …We can’t call it ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and not see a boardwalk.” Production issues aside, any show backed by Martin Scorsese had big name actors lining up. Winter went on to recall, “Scorsese is an actor magnet. Everybody wants to work with him. I had all these pictures on my wall and I thought, ‘I’d really better write some good stuff for these people.'”
The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead wasted no time in terrifying viewers. The AMC post-apocalyptic zombie thriller quickly introduces us to Sheriff Rick Grimes who is navigating the creepy, grainy world in search of his family after being in a coma while the zombie virus spread across the world.
The Walking Dead creator Frank Darabont was asked to create a series or a movie inspired by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead but struggled with finding ways to make a zombie series fresh. His breakthrough came when he got a hold of the comic book series by Robert Kirkman. In a Comic-COn interview, Darabont said of Kirkman’s material, “‘Well that’s how it’s different. You do it as an extended saga. You do it for television, where it’s never been done before, and you do it with conviction and with as much art to it as you can.’ And that was very exciting, when that became a possibility… And that was followed by five years of frustration – or four years, at least, of nobody at the various networks getting it, until AMC. AMC got it.”
When the Miami Vice pilot aired in 1984, it captured the spirit of the era. The two-hour pilot used vivid imagery, like the grill of a Ferarri as it races down the strip, to tell a distinctly ‘80s story. The crime drama follows Crockett and Tubbs, two undercover cops who live for their jobs, as they team up to take down a Columbian drug dealer.
Don Johnson, who played James “Sonny” Crockett, told Rolling Stone about how he got the role: “I had auditioned for the pilot, which got pushed, and I said, To hell with it, I’m going to shoot this independent movie that just so happened to be shooting in Miami… I was sailfishing… off the coast of Stewart, Florida one day, and I got a call ‘ship to shore,’ which was pretty rare back then. The captain said, ‘Hey Don, it’s your agent,’ and I said, ‘Well tell him to [expletive] off, I’ve got a sailfish on the line.’ [Laughs] So I boated the sailfish, and when I called up my agent and he said, ‘Hey, [NBC President] Brandon Tartikoff wants you to come in.”
Mitchell Hurwitz’s sitcom Arrested Development introduced us to the dysfunctional and wealthy Bluth family with the help of the show’s narrator and executive producer, Ron Howard. In the pilot, squeaky clean son Michael Bluth has to decide if he’s going to help is family through a rough patch or cut ties. The impressive part is just how many running jokes are established in the pilot episode.
In an interview with A.V. Club, Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz explained Ron Howard’s idea to create a single-camera comedy, while most comedic TV shows at the time were filmed with multiple cameras in front of a live audience. The use of a single-camera required a show that was quick-witted and fast paced, but they struggled with creating a comedy that could sustain that. Hurwitz said, “So we, as a group, decided to make a show about a family, and from there I started developing these characters… I knew I wanted a show about rich people who lost their money, and had never really developed as human beings, because they had money. They were enduring this hangover in their lives, and were being forced to downsize and get to know each other. Then I started building up from there.”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer first came into the world as a failed cult movie, but Joss Whedon’s television pilot was something else entirely. The campy, witty first episode quickly establishes the bubbly high school student’s secret: she has a calling to fight vampires. Though the production value was lacking, and the actors were young, an immediate chemistry and great writing made this one of the best TV pilots.
When talking about the creation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, creator Joss Whedon told SF Said that he was trying to use metaphor as a way to relate to viewers. When asked if he wanted to do a show, Whedon thought of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “I thought, ‘High school as a horror movie.’ And it really was. And so the metaphor that I had begun to strike at in Alien: Resurrection became the central concept behind Buffy, and that’s how I sold it, and that’s what they bought, and they got it, and they let me do it – and after that, everything was about it.”
House of Cards
The pilot episode of House of Cards was a make or break moment for Netflix. Though they’d dabbled in original content before, expectations were high for this Beau Willimon show. The David Fincher-directed pilot was a massive success, thanks in large part to Kevin Spacey’s brilliant performance as corrupt politician Frank Underwood.
The pilot of the Netflix series isn’t necessarily a pilot since it drops straight into the story without really introducing characters in a conventional way. Spacey told Think Progress that this is why he was on board with doing a show with Netflix: “What was great that they were they only network that said ‘You don’t have to do a pilot,’ Because David Fincher and I really didn’t want to do a pilot, because when you do a pilot, you’re kind of obligated to spend 45 minutes establishing all of the characters. And we didn’t want to do that. We just wanted to get on with telling a story, and tell a story over a long period of time.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
This classic sitcom has one of the most finely crafted pilots in television history. The first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Love is All Around,” depicts Mary Richards finding an apartment and securing her job at the WJM-TV newsroom after being dumped by a fiancé she supported through medical school.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Mary Tyler Moore talked about the development of the show. CBS was so captivated by Moore’s performance on The Dick Van Dyke Show, they decided to focus on her more: “CBS noted how successful it was and how comfortable I seemed being in the spotlight and they asked me if I wanted to do my own show – a situation comedy.” Moore went on to explain that the idea of a woman finding joy in her own career was “progressive,” but CBS wasn’t keen on the idea that she would be a divorcée. “As soon as CBS heard that they hit the ceiling. They said, ‘You can’t have Mary divorced from somebody – even if she has a different last name! They’re going to think she divorced Dick Van Dyke!”
Game of Thrones
The wildly popular HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones started with an attention-grabbing pilot episode introducing the royal families who are competing for power in the fictional realm of Westeros. The pilot is the first and last time the sprawling cast are mostly in one place before they splinter off, which allowed the show to establish its massive world without too much confusion.
While the pilot that aired was a success, the un-aired pilot is a little-known fact about the creation of this legendary series. Showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff recounted why they had to redo the pilot to Vanity Fair: “Watching [screenwriter Craig Mazin and friends] watch the original pilot was one of the most painful experiences of my life. As soon as it finished, Craig said, ‘You guys have a massive problem… none of (our friends) realized that Jaime and Cersei were brother and sister, which is a major, major plot point that we had somehow failed to establish.” Benioff added, “I was taking notes and I had this yellow legal pad, and I just remembered writing in all caps ‘MASSIVE PROBLEM,’ and it’s all I could think about the rest of the night. Craig didn’t really have any great ideas except that he said ‘change everything.'”
When The Sopranos aired on HBO in 1999, the criminal anti-hero so popular in today’s television wasn’t so common. However, there’s little crime in the pilot. Instead, the focus is on the inner life Tony Soprano, a mob kingpin, who is crippled with panic attacks and attends therapy.
The David Chase series continued to subvert expectations of a gangster drama by exploring Tony’s family and home life as well as his criminal activities. Chase recalled to Rolling Stone how he sold the show to HBO as “a real life Simpsons,” saying, “I guess I was just thinking the attitude and the comedic dysfunction and the vulgarity of The Simpsons. I also started thinking about it as Twin Peaks in the Jersey meadowlands.”
Desperate Housewives may have gone downhill in later seasons, but the pilot episode started the show off strong. The residents of the suburban neighborhood Wisteria Lane are introduced by Mary Alice Young, a friend who committed a shocking suicide. The ensemble cast of Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, and Eva Longoria were praised.
Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry said he got the idea for the show when watching the Andrea Yates trials on television with his mother, according to USA Today. “Can you imagine being so desperate that you would do that to your children?” Cherry asked his mother, to which she replied, “I’ve been there.” Cherry went on to say, “I always envisioned her as the perfect wife and mother. The idea that she had a period in her life when she was miserable was astounding to me. I suddenly realized that if my mother could be desperate in the life she had chosen for herself, any woman can.”
Those who thought they would never enjoy a western space drama were pleasantly surprised by the exciting pilot episode of Joss Whedon’s cult classic Firefly. The first episode of the series features space ship stunts, stand-offs, and an epic backstory of Captain Mal Reynolds.
The show aired on Fox and was canceled after eleven of the fourteen episodes were aired, but has inspired large fan support campaigns. The post-airing success led to a movie, Serenity, to wrap up a few plots. The show also won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Visual Effects. A lot of the blame is attirubed to Fox, the network that decided to pick up Firefly, who not only had numerous disagreements with Whedon over many aspects of the show, but they also decided to air the episodes out of order, finally premiering the pilot last.
The pilot episode of the musical high school comedy- drama Glee promised a scripted version of American Idol. The pilot contains a dozen musical numbers, including Broadway tunes, classic rock hits, and Top 40 pop songs among all the high school drama of the pilot.
Casting for Glee was vital as the show’s creators wanted each character to be distinct and unique since they were in high school. Lea Michele, who plays Rachel Berry, told Out Magazine, “I first heard about Glee from my best friend Jonathan Groff. We were in Spring Awakening at the time, and he had just done a pilot with Ryan Murphy and Ryan had seen us in [Spring Awakening]. Jonathan said [Murphy] was writing this show with me in mind for the role of Rachel… I remember reading the pilot script for the first time and thinking it was brilliant. I remember reading the scene where we sang ‘Don’t Stop Believin” and I got the chills.”
Freaks and Geeks
The comedy-drama Freaks and Geeks, created by Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, might just be one of the most honest high school dramas of all time, and that’s quickly established in the pilot episode which establishes the social structure of William McKinley High. According to Mental Floss, “Judd Apatow hired 24-year-old Jake Kasdan to direct the pilot without every seeing his work. Kasdan had written and directed just one movie, the detective flick Zero Effect. Apatow was aware of his work because the two men shared an agent. He hired Kasdan on the agent’s advice and watched the movie the next day. Fortunately, things worked out.”
While the show was canceled after only 12 of the eighteen episodes were aired, a campaign led by fans persuaded NBC to broadcast three more episodes. The three remaining episodes were aired on Fox Family Channel. The series is frequently on best TV shows of all time and canceled too soon lists.
The West Wing
It’s rare that the main character of a show is absent in the pilot episode, but Aaron Sorkin’s political drama The West Wing took that risk with President Bartlett, portrayed by Martin Sheen. Though he’s physically absent until the last six minutes of the pilot, his weight is felt throughout the episode. He has the power to make or end the careers of everyone in the series.
Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue and intellectual banter were praised by critics. The show won three Golden Globe Awards and 26 Emmy Awards, and aired for seven seasons. Garth Ancier, who was President of NBC Entertainment at the time, told Hollywood Reporter, “It is rare in your career to see [a pilot] that absolutely must make it to air. The West Wing was one of those rare instances. The only challenge was NBC internal politics. Senior management was dead set against it: ‘Too liberal.’ ‘Isn’t this Aaron Sorkin guy difficult to deal with?’ The attitude was, essentially, you can put it on the air, but it’s on your head.”